Mexico's Other Border

Mexico once turned a blind eye toward migration. Now, it's cracking down along its southern border.

Mexico once turned a blind eye toward migration. Now, it's cracking down along its southern border.

Along the cocaine corridor that cuts north out of Central America, drug cartels are no longer the primary targets for Mexican police.

Migrants – many young men, mothers and children – are the nation's new persons of interest.

An unprecedented number of Central Americans have been rounded up, arrested and deported by Mexican authorities over the last two years, part of a new crackdown on migration along the country's southern border.

The result has effectively outsourced a solution to the United States' most pressing concerns for its own borders. As deportations in Mexico rose, illegal border crossings in the U.S. dipped.

To many experts, this isn't an accident.

Cynics see the crackdown as the result of pressure from the U.S. to help diffuse a fierce political debate over immigration. Others find the policy changes to be a point of pride for the Mexican government.

These new policies aren't stopping migrants fleeing the gang violence and economic distress of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador from crossing through Mexico. They're just changing the way they do it.

image with artdirection
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) provides medical care to the migrants seeking safe-haven at a series of shelters located along heavily trafficked migration routes.

Migration is much quieter now that The Beast has been silenced.

Routes connecting Central America to the U.S. lost a major link in migration once Mexican authorities blocked travelers from hitching rides atop the nation's largest slow-moving freight train, notorious to passengers as La Bestia.

The sudden shift in traditional modes of transport, coupled with new security checkpoints built slightly north of its border with Guatemala, has forced added migration routes through the low-level jungles in southern Mexico.

Mexican authorities began aggressively arresting Central American migrants at a rate that subsequently shot up by 71 percent between the start of the Southern Border Program in June 2014 and the following summer. Those who escape capture are instead trapped in limbo. If several years ago migrants fled north to reunite with what family they had in the U.S., now they're settling in the impoverished states of Chiapas and Tenosique, willing to take any offer of asylum they can get.

Common routes used by migrants in Mexico.
Migration into Mexico has increased steadily...
Apprehensions of 'Northern Triangle' citizens by Mexican authorities
Sources: Secretariat of the Interior; National Migration Institute
...prompting a spike in children at the U.S. border...
U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions of unaccompanied minors
Note: Years are fiscal years, Oct. - Sept.
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection
...while total apprehensions are down from peak levels.
Total U.S. Border Patrol migrant apprehensions, Southwest border
Note: Years are fiscal years, Oct. - Sept.
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection
image with artdirection
Workers at La 72, located in the Mexican state Tenosique, say migrants have been staying at the shelter for longer periods in the time since the Mexican government first began escalating enforcement along the southern border.

The reforms represent a massive culture shift for a country with a reputation mired in political corruption and a traditionally laissez-faire approach toward enforcing its southern border. Focus on drug traffickers frequently eclipsed attention to the transient populations that passed the unmanned boundary by foot. Migrants hardly had to disguise their intentions – Mexican authorities would seldom flinch.

With the new border crackdown comes a new set of contradictions for Mexico. A country that for generations saw millions of its citizens cross into the U.S. is suddenly telling its southern neighbors they can no longer do the same.

image with artdirection
Workers with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) set up posts along major highways near the Guatemalan border to hand out water and maps for migrants that pass by.

The timing comes just as countries making up the northern triangle of Central America plunge into violent chaos. The governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have cycled between varying degrees of distress for generations.

But this time around, turmoil, aimed predominately at civilians, marks a new era of upheaval.

The trio of countries in the northern triangle routinely rotate rankings as the murder capitals of the world. El Salvador claimed the title in 2015, ending Honduras' two-year streak as the globe's most violent country. El Salvador is also the worst offender of femicide in the world. Guatemala comes in a close third.

The government is not doing anything for the migrants...this Mexican Drug War is just a little show.

Crimes against women are so prevalent in El Salvador that the government was forced to create a special court to handle the staggering caseload of femicide, sexual assault and domestic abuse allegations. And that only covers the women willing to come forward.

A series of shelters dot the migrant routes where aid workers hand out fliers and offer bleak warnings.

Need to check in with family? Don't trust strangers who offer to lend out their cellphones. The digits you punch into their devices are stored for the future, and your family's contact information could later be used as the combination to their life-savings once they're told you're being held for ransom. Use Facebook instead. Status updates are far safer.

Don't place a fair amount of faith in the Mexican police, either. Not all are complicit in the organized crime networks, but the illicit partnerships run deep and reach far. Humanitarian groups caution that aggressive law enforcement raids routinely press the definition of excessive force. Be wary of the officers known to pitch migrants from moving trains if they so dare to defy the new rules.

image with artdirection
image with artdirection
image with artdirection
image with artdirection
Many migrants flee the extreme gang violence of their home countries, only to become further victims of extortion, robbery and killings by gangs in Mexico.

The most visceral warning for migrants is immortalized in the namesake to one of Mexico's largest migrant shelters, La 72.

This place of refuge, located along the northern route near the Guatemala border, commemorates the 72 migrants who were kidnapped and massacred by the Los Zetas drug cartel in 2010. Mexican authorities discovered bodies piled up – 58 men, 14 women – all with bullets pierced through the backs of their heads, execution style. A survivor of the atrocity later said the victims' fates were sealed the moment they refused to pay into the cartel's extortion.

Franciscan friars opened La 72 a year later to help restore a sense of dignity for migrants.

"It was a political statement," said Mizar Martin, a volunteer who helps the more than 150 migrants housed at the shelter today.

"The government is not doing anything for the migrants, and this Mexican drug war is just a little show," she added. "La 72 is a response to that."

La 72 is one of the many shelters that provides a respite for the migrants who make the dangerous journey to the U.S. border. Women are often the most vulnerable to rape and violence.
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet.
La 72 is one of the many shelters that provides a respite for the migrants who make the dangerous journey to the U.S. border. Women are often the most vulnerable to rape and violence.
La 72 is one of the many shelters that provides a respite for the migrants who make the dangerous journey to the U.S. border. Women are often the most vulnerable to rape and violence.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto sold the Southern Border Program as an initiative to safeguard the human rights of migrants. It would for the first time establish clear international boundaries and uplift a border region defined by dire economic conditions.

Unintended consequences instead led to an uptick in illicit activity and exploitation. Migration was spilling over to side roads and pathways to evade and outrun immigration agents.

"The communities have seen an increase in criminal groups and people who are not from the area," said Maureen Meyer, an expert in migrant rights who conducted a field study of the region with The Washington Office on Latin America, a nongovernmental organization. "Crimes follow migrants because of the view that they're easy prey."

image with artdirection
Many migrants are in desperate need of medical attention, weary from traveling hundreds of miles on foot through roads circling Mexico's low-level jungle region.

U.S. officials have taken a keen interest in Mexico's crackdown. The program's impact took mere months to ripple north, reflected in the steadily declining number of Central American children and families intercepted along the U.S.'s own southern border. Migration levels remained relatively high, but nowhere near the unprecedented scale that overwhelmed resources years before.

The timing was critical for the U.S. government. Federal officials had been blindsided by the droves of Central Americans that were arriving by the day. The border crisis sparked fierce political opposition, embarrassing the Obama administration just as it was planning to unveil sweeping changes to U.S. immigration policy.

Meeting with Nieto in Washington the following January, President Barack Obama thanked Mexico for taking pressure off of the U.S.

"I very much appreciate Mexico's efforts in addressing the unaccompanied children who we saw spiking during the summer," President Obama said. "In part because of strong efforts by Mexico, including at its southern border, we've seen those numbers reduced back to much more manageable levels."

image with artdirection
image with artdirection
Director Jose Luis Antonio prepares prosthetics for a child. Migrants risk losing limbs from falling off or being thrown from moving freight trains.

The U.S. is experimenting with a new strategy to tackle the source of the problem, not just the symptoms.

Congress agreed to invest $750 million to help prop up governments in the northern triangle. Another $40 million is dedicated to the international humanitarian groups that identify, vet and process refugee candidates. Multiple U.S. agencies provide assistance in dismantling criminal "coyote" networks of human smugglers.

Top administration officials and members of Congress have visited Central America to discourage families from making the dangerous journey in the first place. Driving the point home during a trip to El Salvador and Honduras in May, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson visited a facility that processed recent migrants who had been deported from the U.S.

image with artdirection
The crackdown along Mexico's southern border is having a ripple effect north, where fewer migrants are able to reach the U.S.

President Obama’s extension of gratitude to Nieto, however, may have been somewhat premature.

Apprehensions at the U.S. border over the last six months have gone up by 78 percent compared to the same time period the year before. While U.S. officials survived the first wave, there may be another one coming.

A study released by Vanderbilt University presented foreboding confirmation of what is yet to come. Armed with evidence that the harrowing journey through Mexico has grown more dangerous, and options to remain in the U.S. are limited, potential migrants said almost nothing would stand in their way of taking the risk.

"Even with Mexico’s enforcement, people are still trying to leave the northern triangle," Ms. Meyer said. "That is something that we’re going to continue to see until circumstances shift."

image with artdirection
image with artdirection
image with artdirection
Debris litters the freight train tracks where migrants travel north to U.S. border by riding in empty boxcars.
Even with Mexico's enforcement, people are still trying to leave the northern triangle.

LARRY TOWELL grew up in a large family in rural Ontario, Canada. He has completed projects on the Nicaraguan Contra war, on the relatives of the disappeared in Guatemala, and on American Vietnam War veterans who had returned to Vietnam to rebuild the country. "If there's one theme that connects all my work, I think it's that of land-lessness; how land makes people into who they are and what happens to them when they lose it and thus lose their identities." In addition to being an internationally celebrated photographer, Towell is also a poet and a folk musician. He has published several books, among them include: El Salvador (1997), The Mennonites (2000), In the Wake of Katrina (2006), The World From My Front Porch (2008) and Afghanistan (2014).

He became a full member of Magnum Photos in 1993. He currently lives in Canada and is the Vice President of the New York office.